On one side, a third baseman discussed the season-ending surgery to treat a chronic condition that left him barely able to move. On the other, a third baseman and outfielder reveled in the distance they had traveled since returning to the field from potentially season-ending injuries.
The very different outlooks for Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell and Rays third baseman Evan Longoria and left fielder Carl Crawford explain a great deal about why Tampa Bay now stands on the cusp of the World Series.
Last night, the Rays flattened the Red Sox by a 13-4 count to assume a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven American League Championship Series. The Rays were led yesterday in large part by the contributions of a pair of players who represented postseason question marks.
“There (were) legit questions,” noted Rays D.H. Cliff Floyd. “You worry whether you’ll have (Longoria and Crawford) for your lineup. And you worry that, when they do come back, how effective are they going to be?”
Longoria suffered a broken wrist when hit by a pitch on August 7. Though he returned in mid-September, it seemed fair to ask whether he would be the same hitter who mashed American League pitching as a rookie.
For his part, the soon-to-be Rookie of the Year was not concerned about diminished performance. He was, however, eager to return to the field.
“It’s tough to look at the schedule and to see that there are 50 games left and you’re not going to be able to play in 30 of them,” said Longoria. “I knew come that six-week marker that I was going to be ready. Believe me—I was checking my calendar every day.”
Once he did return, he offered an emphatic answer to any questions about his ability to excel. He hit five homers in September, and has not slowed down in the postseason.
Yesterday, Longoria jumped on a shoulder-high knuckleball from Red Sox starter Tim Wakefield, smashing it into the seats above the Wall in left field. The solo homer was the third in as many games for the Tampa Bay cleanup hitter against the Red Sox.
In October, he is hitting .281 with a .361 OBP and absurd .813 slugging mark. He has five total homers in the postseason, tied with teammate B.J. Upton for the big-league lead, and nine runs batted in.
“It’s amazing to watch what he’s done,” said Crawford. “He’s (23), a rookie, and he’s carrying the team.”
Crawford, meanwhile, authored a 5-for-5 night, becoming the third player in League Championship Series history to collect five hits in a game. He amassed a pair of singles, slashed one double to left and pulled another one to right, and drove a triple to right-center that glanced just off the glove of outfielder J.D. Drew.
Crawford added a pair of steals, a run batted in and three runs in a performance that left him giddy. Now in his seventh year with the Rays, Crawford had endured the lean years of the franchise. When he injured a tendon in his right middle finger in early August, Crawford required surgery that he feared would end his season.
“Honestly, I thought I would be done for the season,” Crawford reflected. “The doctor said I wasn’t going to be back until the World Series started. We hadn’t ever been to the World Series before, so I thought my season was over.
“I was worried about everything,” he continued. “I’ve never been out before, especially with a serious injury. A lot of stuff was running through my head: would my swing be right? Would I be able to swing the bat hard? There were just so many question marks in my head.”
The questions were also felt by the Rays as an organization. The team worried about letting Crawford rush back to action, fearful that he might be at risk of permanent damage to his post-operative finger.
“I was concerned. I didn’t want this guy to be hurt long-term, no way,” said Rays manager Joe Maddon. “So we were really cautions about it, but in watching him take batting practice, you could see the bat speed was there; you could see there’s no favoring of the hand, so I was okay.”
Crawford healed quickly, and was activated from the disabled list in the final days of September. Still, he did not have a single at-bat over the final 46 games of the regular season. The Rays nonetheless put him back in the fifth spot of the lineup in the playoffs, where he has been an impact player in the middle of the order.
Crawford is hitting an even .500 in the series against the Sox, and has also helped the Rays to cover tremendous ground in the outfield.
Tampa Bay, which managed to win the American League East despite the lengthy absences of both Longoria and Crawford, is now thriving with the two players back in their lineup. The Rays have scored 31 runs in the last three games, thanks largely to a ferociously deep lineup that reflects a return to health by key players.
“We were really hoping they would come back. But you can’t tell,” said Rays outfielder Jonny Gomes. “We got Crawford back. We got Evan. We won the A.L. East, and we became a better team than the one that won the division by having those guys back.”
While the Rays were reveling in the performances of their reinstated fourth and fifth hitters, the Sox were forced to reflect yesterday on a different injury outlook. Lowell confirmed that he will undergo season-ending surgery to treat his injured hip.
On Monday, Lowell will go to New York so that Dr. Bryan Kelly can repair the tear in his hip labrum and shave down a bone spur on his femur. The Sox third baseman had tried in vain to be a part of the postseason roster, but was replaced prior to Game 4 of the ALDS against the Angels when the condition did not permit him to play.
Lowell’s absence from the lineup has been felt. One year ago, he made hay in October on his way to the World Series MVP award. He hit .353 with two homers and 15 runs batted in during the postseason, capping Boston’s championship run by hitting .400 in the Fall Classic.
Lowell was understandably reluctant to discuss the impact of his injury, suggesting that it would be unfair for a “non-player” to analyze his potential impact.
“I don't think it would be right for me to try to assess how my absence from the lineup has hurt,” he said. “I don't think that would be right.”
The Rays, however, were more forthcoming in stating the obvious. The Red Sox lineup with Lowell would assume a different complexion, with a hitter such as Lowell or J.D. Drew or Jason Bay hitting as low as seventh.
Instead, fifth outfielder-turned-starting first baseman Mark Kotsay has become an everyday member of the lineup with Lowell out. Kotsay is hitting .259 with a .592 OPS in the playoffs, numbers that are better than those of several teammates, but that do not suggest the kind of threat that Lowell presented last year.
“You’ve got to give a lot of credit to our guys. They’ve been pitching great,” said Rays catcher Dioner Navarro. “But, yeah, maybe it changes (the lineup). Lowell’s a great hitter. He’s a great ballplayer.”
“He’s one of the guys that really hits me well. I was really happy to not see him in the lineup,” said Tampa Bay pitcher Andy Sonnanstine. “I always feel like he knows what I’m going to throw before I throw it. So for me, personally, it’s big. I can’t speak for the other starters in the rotation. But for me, it’s big.”
The diminished Red Sox lineup is confronting a reinforced Rays batting order. To this point, the results have been entirely one-sided.
Alex Speier is a Senior Writer for WEEI.com.